Category Archives: Principles & Virtues

Of Good and Evil: A Personal View

Views: 12

Sean O’Conaill  Reality  2010

This series sets out to explain how I came to understand the problem of human fallibility in terms of our chronic uncertainty about our own value.

  1. Dealing with the Darkness – How and why, as a teacher of history and current affairs, I came to a conclusion about the central human problem in 1994 – our tendency to climb.
  2. The Human Problem – Why we tend to come unstuck – our chronic inability to value ourselves as we are.
  3. Vanity and Humility – Wanting to be ‘the greatest’ – a major source of conflict. And the one who taught us to try to be the least.
  4. Contagious Desire – How and why we ‘catch’ desires from others, and why we need to be aware of this problem.
  5. Abba – How Jesus reveals God’s compassion for our deepest failing.

Can Pope Francis restore faith in the Irish Church?

Views: 8

Sean O’Conaill  April 2014

One year on from his election Pope Francis has already changed the image of the papacy, and modelled an entirely different style of leadership from that of his two predecessors.  Reflecting the amiability and simplicity of his namesake, St Francis of Assisi, he may even be setting out to respond to the same challenge that the Italian friar heard from Jesus:  to ‘rebuild my church’.

However,  Pope Francis is now in his late seventies – and many younger bishops appointed by his predecessors may well be wondering if this new wind from Rome will last long enough to oblige them to amend their own way of going.

So far no Irish bishop has become quite so accessible, so open, so eager to meet people and hear their stories and grievances.   Where Francis could meet with an atheist editor in Italy – and allow their exchange to be published – no Irish bishop will formally and openly meet with the leaders of the reformist Irish Association of Catholic Priests (ACP).  Where Francis could call a synod on the family, no Irish bishop yet shows any sign of responding to the call Francis makes to all bishops in Evangelii Gaudium 31 – ‘to encourage and develop the means of participation proposed in the Code of Canon Law’.

For example, not even Archbishop Martin of Dublin has projected the holding of a diocesan synod – something his predecessor had done in his final years in office.

And no Irish bishop has shown any sign of taking up another suggestion offered by Evangelii Gaudium – the pope’s advice to every bishop to be willing at times to be led by his own people.

FOA – fear of assembly – still grips Ireland’s bench of bishops in a vice – that fear of ‘stirring up a hornets’ nest’ by, for example, arranging regular open diocesan forums to respond to the missionary challenge issued from the heart of the church.

There can be no missionary revival led by men gripped more by fear than the confidence shown by the pope.  Where is the Irish bishop who will call all of his people to read and discuss Evangelii Gaudium and to feed back to him their vision of the future church, in a truly ‘developed’ diocesan synod?

And where is the Irish bishop who will commit himself to regular interface with a diocesan pastoral council – to respond, for example,  to questions such as those that arise out of Ian Elliott’s concerns for the integrity, independence and strength of the NBSCCC?

If co-responsibility is the challenge of the moment, no Irish bishop has yet risen to that challenge – or responded to the Pope’s clearly given invitation to all national bishops’ conferences to freely consider the particular needs of their own societies, and to be proactive in finding solutions – even at the cost of making mistakes.

Here’s Pope Francis again: “I dream of a ‘missionary option’, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation.”  (Evangelii Gaudium 27)

What are Irish bishops dreaming of these times?  Why can’t they tell us?  And listen to our dreams too?  Which of them will show the same confidence in the Irish people of God, and in the power of the Holy Spirit to lead us?

And when will they ever change the closeted style of their quarterly meetings in Maynooth – those funereal huddles to prepare statements so guarded that they merely add to the mountain of verbal ash that buries the embers of the Irish faith.

They speak now of St Columbanus and his impending 1400th anniversary.  They need to pray for his courage in venturing into another unknown land awaiting the Gospel – and step out, unguarded, onto the island of Ireland.

Challenging the Murphy Report?

Views: 31

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life February 2014

On June 1st 2009 the radar image marking the position of Air France flight 447 over the mid-Atlantic suddenly disappeared, as did 228 human beings. Irish lives too were lost in that tragedy. For over two years its cause was mysterious – because of the difficulty of locating and recovering the plane’s flight recorders from deep ocean water.

Those recorders were retrieved in the end because Air France was able to arrange for a French submarine to scour the bed of the Atlantic over a wide area and over a lengthy period, in search of the unrecovered wreckage of the plane. That meticulous search was finally successful in April 2011, and experts were then able to determine the probable cause of the crash. This had been the icing-over of the plane’s airspeed sensors as it flew through a system of thunderstorms. That alone would have resulted in a loss of instrumentation that would probably have left the pilots not merely disoriented but very likely to misunderstand the situation, and likely then to take actions that would prove disastrous. The discovery of the vulnerability of that aircraft model’s speed sensors was vital in allowing the instrumentation of the Airbus 330 to be made more secure, and in making all air travellers safer.

I particularly noted that determination on the part of a national airline to retain the trust of its passengers because I was trying at the same time to assess the level of interest of our Catholic episcopal magisterium in discovering the answer to another mystery: why its ‘learning curve’ on the issue of clerical abuse of children had failed ever to rise, over many centuries, to the knowledge that this abuse was deeply dangerous to children. Since we know now that the Church Council of Elvira had condemned clergy sexual intimacy with minors in the early fourth century, and know also that St Peter Damien had strongly warned the papacy against retaining these clerical malefactors in ministry in the early eleventh century (for serious moral reasons), it struck me that our church could surely do with a thorough ‘submarine’ study of the history of this malady – to discover exactly why it had not led the world in revealing both the factuality of adult-child sexual abuse and, even more important, its dangers. Why had it still needed to learn this from the secular world in the 1980s?

It was in Nov 2009 – while the remains of Flight 447 were still being sought – that the shock of the Murphy Report on the role of church and state authorities in the handling of abuse in Dublin archdiocese struck Ireland, causing deep anguish to Irish Catholic clergy and people. As a parent who knew some sufferers of clerical sexual abuse I received the Murphy report as a timely vindication of the position they had always taken – that Catholic bishops and their administrative staffs had grievously and unjustly erred in their handling of the issue. I took as a genuine milestone the following excerpt from a statement of the Irish Bishops’ Conference in response to the Murphy Report on Dec 9th 2009:

We are deeply shocked by the scale and depravity of abuse as described in the Report. We are shamed by the extent to which child sexual abuse was covered up in the Archdiocese of Dublin and recognise that this indicates a culture that was widespread in the Church. The avoidance of scandal, the preservation of the reputations of individuals and of the Church, took precedence over the safety and welfare of children. This should never have happened and must never be allowed to happen again. We humbly ask for forgiveness.

Already, of course, beginning in 1994, the Irish church had taken serious steps to make sure that the children of the church should be safer from this crime, and this too was welcome. However, the loss of trust in the episcopal magisterium was still seriously deep and in need of full repair. Why, for example, had it taken the public revelation of the phenomenon of clerical child abuse by Belfast families in 1994 (N.B. not by our bishops or other clergy) – to kick-start the first search for church guidelines for protecting children, when Irish bishops had taken the first steps to protect church finances from damages claims caused by clerical sex abuse as early as 1987?

And why then had it taken a state inquiry to persuade men ordained to be the shepherds and guardians of the Irish Catholic family to admit to a cover up? These questions too suggested the need for a full church-sponsored inquiry into whatever had caused its own inner house, its episcopal magisterium, to fail to prioritise the protection of the Irish Catholic family and to protect the wider church’s trust in the integrity of its leadership – a trust that is surely necessary for the survival of its prestige.

We still do not know the answers to these questions – in the midst of the deepest crisis the Irish church has ever known. This adds to the mystery of the failure of the global church to set out as of yet to discover the full history of this disaster. Why, in short, do Catholic bishops still seem less concerned to restore the trust of their people than a 21st century airliner has shown itself to be in regaining and retaining the trust of its passengers – by uncovering the full story of a disaster, at whatever the cost?

Very surprisingly for me in this context, a recent publication – ‘Untold Story’ by Padraig McCarthy – suggests an entirely different course of action – that Irish bishops might instead consider rebutting altogether the charge of cover-up, as well as the charge that in explaining their failures in Dublin up to 1994 solely in terms of a ‘learning curve’ they were being evasive.

For reasons of health I cannot submit myself to the full rigours that McCarthy has obviously endured in re-examining the full report over the past four years. I am already satisfied, however, that he makes a good case for the occasional fallibility of the report, and especially for the fallibility of its language. That linguistic precision failed at least once with disastrous consequences for the wider clergy of the Dublin diocese. In its account of what was known of clerical child sex abuse among Dublin clergy the following paragraph occurs:

1.24 Some priests were aware that particular instances of abuse had occurred. A few were courageous and brought complaints to the attention of their superiors. The vast majority simply chose to turn a blind eye. The cases show that several instances of suspicion were never acted upon until inquiries were made. Some priest witnesses admitted to the Commission that they had heard various reports ‘on the grapevine’.

This paragraph alone suggests that the commission did not review the final draft of the report with a keen enough eye to basic comprehensibility, let alone with an eye to how it might be used by media queuing up to summarise and sensationalise it. As the word ‘some’ can mean a percentage anywhere between one and ninety-nine, what on earth is that word ‘some’ doing in this paragraph – both as the initial word of the very first sentence, and initially again in the last? As to the ‘majority’ who ‘chose to turn a blind eye’, was this a majority of the initial ‘some’ or of the entire cohort of ordained men serving the Dublin diocese over the period in question? The impossibility of making any sense of what a ‘majority’ of ‘some’ might mean, and the media deadlines and competition that advised editors in favour of the easy option, led to media accounts of the report that took by far the most sensational and damning option. The consequent suffering of all Dublin clergy, and of all Catholic clergy must have been intense.

The Murphy commission has been seriously at fault at the very least in not withdrawing and rewriting this paragraph. As it stands it weakens the report’s authority by failing to make any useful sense, and by allowing an interpretation that is argued against by the commission’s own finding that those clergy who knew the details of these abuses of children followed a policy of secrecy.

There is another reason for changing that paragraph. The commission does not ever say clearly what it means by the term ‘cover up’. It is therefore open to readers of the document to interpret ‘chose to turn a blind eye’ as equivalent to ‘cover up’ – and from there to proceed to a conclusion that a majority of Dublin clergy were covering up criminal abuse.

There is another lack of clarity in the report – to do with frequent use of the term ‘learning curve’. McCarthy find this especially damaging because he feels that the commission’s rejection of the explanation given by clergy dealing with the issue – of why they did x when they could have done y (and absolutely never did z!) – i.e. that they were on a ‘learning curve’ – imputes to them a blanket dishonesty.

He quotes the following from the report:

1.14 The volume of revelations of child sexual abuse by clergy over the past 35 years or so has been described by a Church source as a ‘tsunami’ of sexual abuse. He went on to describe the ‘tsunami’ as ‘an earthquake deep beneath the surface hidden from view’. The clear implication of that statement is that the Church, in common with the general public, was somehow taken by surprise by the volume of the revelations. Officials of the archdiocese of Dublin and other Church authorities have repeatedly claimed to have been, prior to the late 1990s, on ‘a learning curve’ in relation to the matter. Having completed its investigation, the commission does not accept the truth of such claims and assertions.

McCarthy goes on to argue as follows:

What the commission is actually saying is this (please pardon my blunt translation):

“Officials of the archdiocese of Dublin and other Church authorities have repeatedly claimed to have been, prior to the late 1990s, on ‘a learning curve’ in relation to the matter. Having completed its investigation over several years, the commission does not believe them. The commission believes that they were repeatedly telling lies. We, the commission, say very clearly that there was no such learning curve. The commission believes that we cannot trust what these people say.”

They make another equally serious charge (again my words):

“These people say that they were on a learning curve – that they

did not have sufficient knowledge and understanding prior to the late 1990s. We do not believe them. We believe that they did have the requisite knowledge to deal effectively with the allegations of child sexual abuse and that they deliberately chose not to do so. They deliberately turned a blind eye and let children and families suffer.”

(Unheard Story p. 39)

McCarthy follows this by proving conclusively that Dublin administrators could not have known in, say, 1980 what they knew by, say 1994.

I can agree that again here the language of this paragraph of the Murphy report can bear the interpretation that McCarthy gives it. However, having read, several times, all of those passages in the Murphy report that speak of a ‘learning curve’ , I believe that McCarthy’s summary is mistaken. I believe that instead the commission was saying something more like the following:

“Your explanation of your actions over a long period in terms of a ‘learning curve’ is in the end incomplete, unconvincing and evasive. It’s true that you did not know in 1980 what you knew by 1994. However, you did know of cases of clerical sexual abuse of children in the 1960s and 1970s, and you knew from then also that these actions were repugnant both to the law of the Irish state and to the laws of the church. You may not have been aware all along of the full consequences of these actions for the long-term health of the children concerned, or of the typical chronic recidivism of paedophiles, but you had no reason whatsoever to believe that such an experience for a child – an experience categorised as a crime by both legal codes – would be harmless. You must therefore have had deep misgivings in returning these men to ministry, misgivings about the possible dangers to other children if these men were to reoffend – as some had already done. In failing for so long to explore options for dealing with offenders that could have involved a civil criminal investigation – and in failing also to explore the full possibilities of canon law for removing offenders from Catholic ministry – we believe that you were not constrained simply by lack of experience and knowledge but by the conviction that these offences must not become a matter of public knowledge.

“The ‘learning curve’ explanation of your conduct for so long is therefore in the end both inadequate and evasive – because you have not admitted that your belief in the need for secrecy to avoid scandal, and not just your lack of knowledge, was at all times what also constrained you in the period before 1994, and you must know that it was.”

I come to this conclusion simply because of the volume of evidence covered by the commission in the report – evidence that was easily sufficient to convince it of the conclusions it reached. The absence of any general warning – at any stage before 1994 – to Irish families that caution over child safety in a church context would be sensible speaks emphatically of a reluctance to admit even that sexual abuse by a priest could ever occur. The uniformity of administrative clerical practice in Dublin archdiocese until 1994 – in never choosing an option that would put the facticity of Catholic clerical sexual abuse into the public domain – speaks to the same conclusion. In that year, 1994, the phenomenon of child sex abuse by some Irish clergy was revealed for the very first time to the Irish public by civil legal court actions initiated by Catholic families – NOT by any Catholic cleric in Dublin or elsewhere. It was only then that the ‘learning curve’ of Dublin diocesan administrators rose to embracing options that they had previously avoided. And it was only then that the Irish magisterium began the search for guidelines for dealing with offenders and for ensuring the protection of the children of the church.

McCarthy’s efforts to interpret every avoidance of any option that would result in public revelation until then as entirely explicable and excusable in terms of the limits of the knowledge they had, and/or of the psychiatric advice they had received, and/or in terms of the unproven effectuality of other options – are in the end unconvincing. I cannot and will not impute to any individual at any stage a primary intent to cover up a crime, but the sheer volume of such incidents and the uniformity of clerical practice in avoiding all options that would have led to public revelation, speaks to a conviction until 1994 on the part of all clergy who dealt with these matters that such public revelation of clerical sexual misconduct must be excluded as an option – whatever else they knew or didn’t know.

The commission’s account of the diocesan use of psychiatric advice speaks to the same conclusion:

1.38 Archbishop Ryan failed to properly investigate complaints, among others, against Fr McNamee, Fr Maguire, Fr Ioannes*, Fr (Name withheld) Septimus* and (Name withheld) . He also ignored the advice given by a psychiatrist in the case of Fr Moore that he should not be placed in a parish setting. Fr Moore was subsequently convicted of a serious sexual assault on a young teenager while working as a parish curate.

1.50 In the case of Fr Payne he (an auxiliary bishop) allowed a psychiatric report which was clearly based on inaccurate information to be relied on by Archbishop Ryan and subsequently by Archbishop Connell (see Chapter 24).

1.71 The Commission is very concerned at the fact that, in some cases, full information was not given to the professionals or the treatment facility about the priest’s history. This inevitably resulted in useless reports. Nevertheless, these reports were sometimes used as an excuse to allow priests back to unsupervised ministry.

This is important because McCarthy makes much use of the failings of psychiatry to justify his conclusions that diocesan officials were indeed on a ‘learning curve’ in their handling of abuse. It’s clear that both psychiatrists and clerical administrators were indeed learning as they went along, but that clergy were also operating within the ‘no publicity’ constraint, even in having recourse to psychiatry. They could never allow themselves to learn that state prosecution could be an option until the secrecy that they themselves had maintained had been exploded.

For much the same reasons I have the same difficulty with McCarthy’s position on the commission’s charges of ‘cover up’. In a chapter dealing with this he writes:

Perhaps the commission interprets as a cover-up the efforts of the diocese to deal with the situation without handing the whole thing over to state authorities, but at the time there was no legal obligation to do this.

I must say that I find this argument, at this late stage, quite staggering. There has been much recent public attention to the problem caused to families if abuse of one family member by another is ignored and not challenged, and general agreement that this kind of cover up is entirely wrong – quite apart from what the law may have to say about that abuse. To ensure the safety of younger family members, the abusive member needs to be confronted and those younger members need to be informed of the danger.

Leaving entirely aside the role of the state in dealing with clerical child abuse, the church too is a family, all of whose members have needed to know – and have had a right to know – of the danger of clerical child sex abuse ever since Irish bishops have known of the problem, and have known also that men who have abused in this way have been, as a matter of policy, sometimes returned to ministry. Keeping the phenomenon of Catholic clerical child abuse entirely to themselves in these circumstances was always a breach of trust, and therefore morally repugnant – completely irrespective of state legal requirements. It was a sin against family.

It is specious to argue in this cause that bishops could not ever have divulged information that could have damaged the reputation of individuals. What they could have done since the knew of the possibility of clerical sex abuse occurring was simply to find a way of warning their people that it could occur. That they never did that speaks also of a church denial of information – i.e. of a cover-up that actively endangered all of the children of the church – especially when, by the early 1980s they were aware of the wider incidence of the problem.

Total exculpations of diocesan clerical administrators also tend to ignore the claims of the magisterium to be a teaching corps – i.e. a corps that could claim to teach the whole church and the wider global society – especially about matters of family. All Catholics could feel justly proud today if their magisterium had faced with fortitude the ordeal of revealing to their people that Catholic clergy could err in this way – before secular society had evolved to the point of forcing them to acknowledge it. “Why didn’t they tell us!” – this is what we lay people all now tend to ask. Our church leaders could have taught and led the world – instead of waiting to become an object of media execration.

That this leadership could have happened in Dublin also is proven by the resignation statement of Bishop Moriarty of Kildare and Leighlin on Dec 24th 2009. (He had earlier served as an auxiliary in Dublin archdiocese.)

It does not serve the truth to overstate my responsibility and authority within the archdiocese. Nor does it serve the truth to overlook the fact that the system of management and communications was seriously flawed. However, with the benefit of hindsight, I accept that, from the time I became an auxiliary bishop, I should have challenged the prevailing culture.

It does not serve the church’s best interests to say its leaders were no more dilatory in facing this problem than the surrounding society, and that it’s leaders should therefore be completely exonerated. If the church is ever to lead anyone, all of its members need to see the necessity, sometimes, of taking risks to effect change. This is especially true for all of those in a position to be especially aware of faults, and of injustice, within the church itself.

I find it interesting to speculate, for example, over the reasons for the deep anger felt by St Peter Damien over what he described as moral corruption of the young by clergy in the early second millennium. Morality is our church’s ‘core business’ – in the deep belief that to be moral is to be deeply happy also. The deep demoralisation experienced by all who suffer abuse suggests that a remoralisation of the church is necessary if we are to address a whole series of problems, from addiction to school and workplace and digital bullying to clinical depression. If we are to do that we need to find a way of talking honestly together about all kinds of abuse, including clerical and family sexual abuse. I don’t believe we can move to that stage if we now set out to roll back the major findings of the Murphy report – including the finding that our ‘learning curve’ was retarded, and not completely unconsciously, by episcopal secrecy – by a cover-up.

In a very real sense the cover-up mentality is not yet completely behind us. How many Irish priests feel strong enough now to initiate a discussion with lay people on this whole issue? And how many of us laity would feel ready to be entirely open about, for example, the issue of family abuse, in such a discussion? We all need to pray hard these days for all the gifts of the Holy Spirit. When will church bells toll to convene us all for the most candid verbal communion?

Thankfully the new papacy has shown signs of a willingness to take risks on behalf of a more open church. I have not lost hope that someday we will know the full story of the church’s unspectacular learning curve on clerical child sexual abuse – over sixteen centuries. We will not finally be able to declare the era of cover up behind us until the church at its summit has commissioned as unremitting an investigation of its tragically slow ‘learning curve’ on clerical child abuse as Air France undertook into the causes of the crashing of Flight 447.

The Spirit of Vatican II

Views: 13

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality  September 2012

What exactly was ‘the spirit of Vatican II’? Ignorant voices are sometimes raised these times to misrepresent it merely as the spirit of 1960s secular liberalism. This trend has led to an even more dangerous and unjust one: to blame ‘the spirit of Vatican II’ and those who speak of it for ‘all that has gone wrong’ since.

This Catholic did his Leaving Cert in 1960, and was at UCD when news of the council broke. I remember vividly what the spirit of Vatican II meant to me. In essence it was the spirit of confidence, love and hope that led Pope John XXIII to call the council in the first place. It was also the spirit led him to support the movement among so many bishops to abandon a quite contrary spirit – the spirit of fear, chauvinism and triumphalism, of anathemas and overbearing paternalism, that had tended to dominate the governance of the church in the nineteenth century. It was also the spirit that led Pope John XXIII to visit a Roman prison and speak off the cuff about the equal compassion of God for all of us.

It was never a spirit of heady conformity to 1960s hedonism. I never associated ‘the spirit of Vatican II’ with the so-called ‘sexual revolution’, or with the naivety of ‘all you need is love’. It was a spirit that called me instead to discipleship, and therefore to discipline also. It was a call to maturity, to responsibility, to holiness (i.e. to prayer, goodness and kindness), to joy, and to learning. And it was a call to every baptised Catholic.

I felt confident in the world Catholic magisterium of that time, despite the obvious fact that so many Irish bishops harked back to the fearful and controlling paternalism of the pre-conciliar period. As a young teacher after the council I felt sure that the spirit of the council would soon prevail in Ireland also, especially through dialogical and collegial church structures that would arise inevitably out of Lumen Gentium Article 37.

And so I am certain that ‘all that has gone wrong since’ is a result of the failure of the Catholic magisterium to maintain the spirit of Vatican II – that spirit of hope and confidence and equal dignity in the church. Above all it was the result of a betrayal by the magisterium of not just the spirit but the letter of Lumen Gentium.

One illustration will suffice. According to Lumen Gentium 37 (1965) Catholic lay people would be “empowered to manifest their opinion on those things which pertain to the good of the Church” …. “through the institutions established by the Church for that purpose”.

Let’s suppose that had actually happened in Ireland, say in the 1970s. If there had existed in Ireland truly representative and open diocesan and parish forums from the early 1970s, would the parents of Irish clerical abuse victims of the late 70s and 80s and 90s have had to rely from then on only on the integrity of secretive Catholic bishops and their underlings to protect other Catholic children? Could, for example, Brendan Smyth have continued to run rampant through Ireland until 1993 – if Irish Catholic lay people had learned much earlier the confidence to question their bishops openly on administrative matters, ‘through structures established for that purpose’?

Now in 2012, the CDF’s “promoter of justice” Mgr Charles Scicluna tells us that in this matter of child protection ‘Bishops are accountable to the Lord, but also to their people.’ None of us would have needed telling of this if the magisterium had held on to the spirit of Vatican II, and implemented its letter also.

Yet the summary report of the Vatican visitators to Ireland makes no mention of Irish bishops being accountable to their people! The magisterium’s clock is still stuck in 1965, still stuck in Curial fear of any Catholic assembly it cannot control and manipulate. What an ocean of tears has been shed in consequence!

And the letter of Lumen Gentium remains unhonoured to this day. Whatever spirit has determined that, it isn’t the spirit of Vatican II. It isn’t the Holy Spirit either.

The Church isn’t the only institution in the dock

Views: 18

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality Jan 2012

At this time in the history of the island, word spread of a new power in the land. Its representatives had fascinating information to impart. These personalities had new ways of looking at the world, a capacity to set people talking and to widen everyone’s horizons. They channeled information from far overseas, greatly expanding the data that people had access to. People found them reliable, and came to trust this new power. Those who had previously most influenced the thinking of the people gradually lost that influence. The new institution came to change how everyone behaved, and to determine what they talked about.

As time passed the prestige of this new power grew enormously on the island, until its name was known by everyone, and millions listened. It came to determine who was to be honoured and who to be shamed, and even to influence the government of the island.

Then, unexpectedly, people learned that this new institution had abused its extraordinary power, and had acted with complete injustice. Suddenly the spotlight that the institution had focused on others was now focused on itself. The people sensed an important turning point, and were angry that the trust they had placed in this institution had been betrayed.

~*~

If you have guessed by now that the institution described above is RTE, and the modern Irish media generally, you are quite correct. But notice something else. This plotline accurately fits the history of another very different institution – the Irish Catholic Church.

Of course the history of the latter is to be measured in centuries rather than decades, but otherwise there are striking similarities in the history of the Irish media, and the history of the Catholic church in Ireland.

The most striking similarity is the power that both acquired to utterly change the way of life of an entire people. Both brought new information from the outside world, and new personalities, and both addressed fundamental questions that we all ask: just how valuable and important am I in the scheme of things, and how should I live to be worthy of respect? They therefore both sidelined the previous mentors of the Irish people and acquired an unparalleled power to influence Irish behaviour.

This gave them both in the end the same power to honour some people and to shame others – to make saints or celebrities or winners of some and villains or sinners or losers of others. There is no greater power than the power to broker honour and shame – and this power is supremely dangerous. We now know for certain that sooner or later those who exercise too much of this power will overreach and act unjustly. We have now seen that happen both to Irish Catholic clergy and to Irish media executives – in the same short time span. This gives us an unparalleled opportunity to learn, and to draw conclusions.

Those who draw the conclusion ‘the Catholic Church is evil and should be destroyed’ are as mistaken as those who shout ‘the media are all evil and bigoted’. A more correct conclusion is that power is deeply problematic for us humans, and must never be absolute. An even more important conclusion is that every one of us has a part to play in limiting the power that is given to any institution.

The saving grace of the media is that it embraces a wide range of different outlets, and includes journalists of real integrity and courage. Had it not been for good journalists in the Irish secular media we would know little of serious abuses of power by, for example, negligent bishops and too many of those who ran Catholic institutions for the poorest children in Ireland in the last century.

The main saving grace of the Catholic Church is that it provides us with a founding figure who saw it as his primary mission to assure the sinners and losers of this world that they were, in reality, lovable and loved. When the power brokers of honour and shame of his own time turned on him he identified precisely the core problem of human society:

“You look to one another for approval!”

Looking to one another for approval, rather than to something far more reliable, we humans are extremely vulnerable to being influenced by others, and to vanity, the tendency to seek public admiration. We do this because we are supremely unsure of our own value – unless we do what all the great mystics have done. This is to seek and then to rely upon, an unfailing source of self-esteem that has nothing to do with what other humans think of us. Following Jesus of Nazareth, many of the greatest Christian mystics were also members of the Catholic Church.

The abuse of power on the other hand has almost always something to do with seeking, or trying to hold on to, the approval of others. Catholic bishops would not have concealed clerical abuse if they had not been concerned about the clerical church losing the approval of those who finance the institution. Media executives would not allow false accusations to be made by their reporters if they were not concerned about winning the approval of their paying customers, especially those with an appetite for scandal.

What feeds the worst of the media is this human appetite for scandal – bad news about other people, and especially about those who have enjoyed more esteem. To reduce the power of the gutter media, those who patronise it really need to think hard about why they do so. If they really need to hear bad news about others, what does that say about their own self-esteem?

We also need to notice the full significance of the mistake made by RTE in relation to Fr Kevin Reynolds – falsely accused by Prime Time Investigates of fathering a child through rape of a young African girl. For the first time in two decades the full glare of the Irish media spotlight turned now on the media itself, and this time the scandal has to do with the media’s abuse of power. No one should miss the significance of that. This horrible error marks a critical turning point in the history of Irish scandal.

For the most powerful brokers of honour and shame in Irish society are no longer now the leaders of the Catholic Church, but the most powerful executives in the Irish media. They have an almost absolute power to make, and destroy, the reputation of anyone they focus on. If there is a better media concerned above all about justice, shouldn’t it now turn its attention to this imbalance of power, and deal with abusive reporting as fiercely as it has dealt with clerics and religious who have abused power? Shouldn’t our best newspapers now have media correspondents as well as religious affairs correspondents?

Knowing as I do some of the best Irish journalists I know that they would fully agree with this point, and were as disturbed by the RTE mistake as any Catholic. We may yet see an Irish media that is as self-critical as it is critical of other institutions.

As for those journalists who can’t take this point, and who want to go on seeing the Irish Catholic Church as the root of all evil in Ireland, their bias will now stand out in stark relief. No sensible person can now argue that the media too don’t illustrate the truth that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Catholics can take pride that it was a Catholic historian, Lord Acton, who first formulated that conclusion in 1887, and that their church has produced outstanding servants of justice. Assured by our founder that God’s love for all of us is unfailing, we don’t need the uniform approval of the media, and we don’t need to get angry when the media are unfair. That unfairness will not go unnoticed by all concerned about the truth – and sooner or later a balance will be restored.

Nor should Catholics resent their church’s loss of power in Ireland. We are now far less vulnerable to scandal – and the light of those many Catholics who have always served the Irish people well will now shine far more brightly.

Can Morality be taught without ‘Myth’?

Views: 15

Sean O’Conaill  © The Irish Times  Tuesday November 22 2011

RITE AND REASON: The attempt to identify Christianity with basic biblical literalism and violence is dishonest, writes SEÁN O’CONAILL

HOW DO we humans develop moral values? It is fascinating to see this question being raised by the “new atheism” (Rite and Reason, Michael Nugent, October 18th, 25th, Nov 1st).

Rejecting all religious storytelling (‘myth-making’), Nugent backs the scientific method and assures us that “we can best live together with other sentient beings by empathising with them and seeking to maximise their well-being and minimise their suffering”.

Nugent did not tell us, however, how he would go about teaching empathy. Would this be a matter of compiling empirical data about the impact of, say, abuse upon children, and then presenting these facts – as Powerpoint presentations maybe – to other children and adults? Does he think this kind of exposition would hook them and turn them into moral paragons, or bore them to tears?

Does Mr Nugent empathise at all with the children in Dickens’s Hard Times to whom that other devotee of empirical science, Mr Gradgrind, wished to teach nothing but hard facts? Does he see any virtue in Dickens’s manner of teaching morality – by creating vivid fictional characters and tracing their lives through boldly dramatic plots? Can he think of a better way of persuading an errant capitalist to empathise and ‘think again’ (ie repent) than by sitting him down to read or watch A Christmas Carol ?

These questions are important because, for all of recorded time, human culture has found storytelling to be the most effective method of holding the attention of the widest range of people, and of evoking the strongest empathy and deepest reflection. Has the new atheism come up with something not only radically different but empirically proven to be more effective?

If so, is it not time we heard about it? If not, just how empirically justifiable is the new atheism’s contempt for religious myth as a transgenerational conveyor of moral values?

The meaning of the word “myth” is contested. At the simplest level, a myth is a story to which we attribute overarching importance as a conveyor of “life meaning”. We now live, we are told, in the postmodern era, when no such “grand narrative” is respectable, so the word “myth” has come to mean something close to a “lie”.

Can the new atheism prove that this is an entirely safe place to be, morally? Is there evidence that, deprived of all myth, human beings become more moral, and more empathetic? If no superior myth has emerged purely out of the scientific method after four centuries, is there no reason to fear that science, for all of its power to change our environment, may be morally sterile and indifferent?

Although you cannot depend upon the new atheists to tell you this, the Christian myth has been told in different ways. Augustine’s sex-centred interpretation of the Bible is hugely different from Teilhard de Chardin’s evolutionary account.

Emerging Christianity is busy discussing how to connect Christian salvation with planetary salvation, and finding that task well within its compass. The call to generosity and simplicity of life is meeting a Christian response as varied and relevant today as the medieval monastic movement and the Franciscan renewal of the 13th century.

The new atheism’s attempt to identify Christianity simply with fundamentalist biblical literalism and violence is transparently dishonest.

On the other hand, Nugent’s interest in morality is greatly to be welcomed. It signifies a realisation that the problem of evil is as far from resolution today as it was when some of the 18th century rationalists proposed that universal education would bring a moral Utopia. Why are we so prone to self-harm as a species? Mr Nugent needs to ask himself if his optimism about the moral benefit of demolishing all religious myth might not be just another example of empirically unsubstantiated faith.

The Church needs structural reform

Views: 48

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality  March 2011

It’s clear that our church cannot renew itself unless radical structural change takes place.

“Renewal and reform of the Church …. will only come from within the Church, that is from within a community of men and women who listen to the word of God, who come together to pray, who celebrate the Eucharist and are called to share in the very life of Christ himself … Renewal of the Church is not about … structural reform.”

These were the words of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin on November 20th, 2010. Fervently in agreement with the first sentence, I was stunned by the last. I simply could not understand why the archbishop seemed to believe at that time that our church could renew itself without radical structural reform.

To begin with, he himself has had to grapple with the consequences of church structures that give conflicting and irreconcilable responsibilities to bishops. The reputation of his four predecessors will forever be tarnished by the events related in the Murphy report. This clearly showed that until 1994 Dublin’s archbishops were unable to reconcile their obligation to care for the church’s most vulnerable members – children – with their other obligation to safeguard the clerical institution from scandal.

Hundreds of children suffered horrifically as a consequence, and this then became the greatest scandal of all. And this scandal was revealed not by church structures but by secular structures. The latter are far from perfect, but they are in one respect superior to the governing structures of the church: they allow for transparency and a separation of powers and responsibilities. This prevents the secrecy and concentration of power that gave us the abuse crisis – the organisational culture that the church still clings to.

The archbishop could of course argue in response that the independent National Board for the Safeguarding of Children in the Catholic Church (NBSCCC) will prevent the events of 1975-2004 ever recurring. But the NBSCCC itself believes that further church reform is necessary. In its second annual report of April 30th, 2010, its chairman, John Morgan declared that a period of reflection is needed that should (in his words) “extend to trying to understand and examine what Church structures brought about the situation that has unfolded before us and how such structures must be changed”.

Almost certainly the NBSCCC is concerned about the culture of clericalism fostered by current church structures – a culture that conditions clergy to be in control and also conditions Catholic lay people to defer to that arrangement. This will remain a threat to the principle upon which all child safeguarding in the church must rest – the principle of the paramount interests of children. The hundreds of child protection personnel currently being trained by the NBSCCCC cannot do their job effectively until that principle is embedded in the church’s own organisational blueprint – canon law. And until lay people participate as of right in the governance of the church.

Furthermore, the widespread confidence that the NBSC has managed to create in its own integrity and independence could still easily be lost. If church structures are not changed to make them far more transparent, clericalism could dictate that the bishops who appoint the executive board of the NBSCCC would appoint compliant lay people who would be prepared to ditch the paramountcy principle for the sake of ‘harmony’ – taking us back to the era of the cover-up.

A key weakness in the church’s governing structures is the total absence of a canonical mechanism for removing a dysfunctional bishop. Of the four Irish bishops who have resigned in the wake of the abuse crisis, none was removed by an internal church process. Bishops Comiskey, Magee and Murray resigned in the wake of the public revelation of their failures, and the outcry that followed. Bishop Moriarty resigned because in his own view he had failed to challenge the culture of cover-up that had failed the children of Dublin. In all cases it is clear that had it not been for factors external to the church’s governing system those bishops would still be in place.

Dublin is currently fortunate to have Dr Martin in charge. But what would happen to the reforms he has introduced in Dublin if he were replaced by someone far less committed to them? Without changes to canon law, and to diocesan church structures, everything he has achieved would be entirely reversible.

To be fair to Dr Martin, he was entirely right to stress that renewal of the church will also depend upon a renewal of faith, sourced in the Gospels. But does he really appreciate how the faith of the Irish Catholic people has been challenged by church structures that have let them down so badly? There is a very real danger that seeking now to retain their faith in the current awful crisis, many more Irish people will conclude that their native church is irreformable, and that they must detach themselves completely from it. Many have already done so.

Others, however, refuse to give up on the idea of structural reform of their own church. Evidence of this came following the December meeting of the Irish Bishops’ Conference. A press release on December 14th revealed that over 2,500 respondents to a consultation on the papal pastoral letter of March 2010 had focused on the following core themes: ‘Spiritual Renewal; Structural Renewal; Role of Women and on the Church of Community and Communion’.

Further information on these responses soon came from the bishops’ ‘Council for Pastoral Renewal and Adult Faith Development’. In a report that is available on the website for the Irish Bishops’ Conference it was revealed that:

“There was widespread disappointment among respondents that in the Pope’s Letter child sex abuse is not seen as a symptom of shortcomings in structure and function in the Church. In addition, there is no critique of the role of the Vatican. There is little or no acknowledgement of the exclusion of lay people from roles where they can make significant contribution.”

For most of those who took part in this consultation it must have been heartening to find that they were not alone in calling for structural change. Disappointingly, the Irish bishops’ conference has so far failed to comment at length in reply. Bishop Seamus Freeman in his own letter of response merely referred everyone to the papal document ‘Verbum Domini’ of 2008. As this is a complex exhortation by Pope Benedict to read and reflect on the scriptures it is difficult to see how it is especially helpful in illuminating the question of structural change.

At the most basic level an organisation’s structure convenes its members to meet regularly, to enable them to interact to their mutual benefit and to come to a common understanding. Even to do what Dr Martin and the Pope advocate, to come together to pray and to listen to the word of God, we need to ‘structure’ this into the habitual life of the church.

Instead, our habitual way of ‘interacting’ – the Sunday Mass – has undergone no substantial change in this awful crisis that would allow us to interact at the deepest possible level. It observes the traditional rigid apartheid between priests and people, and requires the latter to open our mouths only for scripted responses and the occasional hymn. No wonder our young people are wondering why we go on mindlessly like this – meeting weekly without communicating. There is a deep dysfunction in the Irish church at present – the kind of dysfunction that prevents a troubled family from meeting in one place to come to a new understanding of how its members are to love one another again.

The newly formed Irish Association of Catholic Priests seems to be well aware of this. Welcoming Bishop Freeman’s publication of the results of the 2010 consultation in the Irish Times, it too called for structural reform and declared that the time might be right for the calling of a national assembly or synod of the Irish church.

At Christmas it seemed that Archbishop Martin had also been paying close attention. Whereas in November he had insisted that renewal was ‘not about structural reform’, on December 24th he said in his Christmas homily “Renewal in the Church is not
simply about structures and organization, no matter how important these can be.” Just a small shift, certainly, but a potentially very significant one.

The absence of structures that will require clergy and people to interact respectfully, thoughtfully and regularly will prove fatal if it continues. Since Vatican II we have never had an opportunity to come to a fruitful understanding of our complementary roles. It is this above all that has given us a ‘two-tier’ church in Ireland, and attitudes that devolve all church responsibility onto clergy in the first instance. Embedded in our church structures at the deepest level – actually institutionalised in them – is the heresy of clericalism.

It is important to say this because Dr Martin has many times identified clericalism as a major obstacle to renewal. It cannot be confronted or eradicated without structural reform.

In the end, of course, events may prove Dr Martin correct in one sense. Oppressed by the multiple crises of the moment more and more Irish people may indeed come together spontaneously to reflect upon the Gospels and to pray. That was exactly what happened in the 16th century when to many people the church of popes and bishops had become corrupt. This led to the fragmentation of north-European Christianity and to the multitude of varieties of Christian witness that we see today. It is now far from certain that the Catholic church in Ireland will avoid a similar fate.

If it is to do so, structural reform must be on its near horizon. We need to be convened as regularly for renewal as we are for Mass. It is an insult to the Mass, and to God, to go on as we are going. If the Irish Bishops’ Conference is at last to show real leadership it must face this issue squarely in 2011.

Rethinking Catholic Formation

Views: 14

Sean O’Conaill  ©  Reality Feb 2011

As more and more teenagers and young adults fall away from the practice of the faith, we need to rethink the timing of baptism and the other sacraments of initiation.

~*~

For the earliest Christians, initiation into the life of the church was a deeply experienced event occurring in adulthood. Those who had actually known Jesus of Nazareth, and who had experienced the Pentecostal flame, were profoundly changed by that experience, and spoke of a ‘new life’ beginning at that point. So did St Paul, who had an equivalent experience. As an often persecuted minority living in an environment that was usually unpredictable, those early Christians had a highly compressed sense of future time. Typically they expected that the ‘end times’ – the return of the Lord and the ‘coming of the kingdom’ – could happen very soon, quite possibly in their own lifetime.

Consequently they saw the baptismal initiation of other adults into this new life as the most urgent priority, and as the sacramental equivalent of the Pentecostal experience. All New Testment accounts of Baptism are accounts of the Baptism of adults. Preparation for this event was at first also an urgent affair, stressing the ethical challenge that Jesus had posed, rather than setting out a systematic Christian theology. Nowhere in the New Testament do we find an account of the instruction and Baptism of children. That is not to say that this didn’t happen: it is more than likely that parents would have wanted their children to be instructed and baptised – but we have no account of that in the New Testament.

It’s clear instead from the earliest accounts that the church grew rapidly at first mainly through the deep conversion of adults who were attracted to the spirituality, discipline and warmth of the Christian community. Baptism typically celebrated the conscious beginning of an adult life of faith – after a period of formation known as the Catechumenate. The profound culminating experience of Baptism was thought of as the beginning of an eternal life in union with the Trinity. ‘Salvation’ was believed to begin with this experience – this ‘dying to the self’ – rather than after physical death.

As these early centuries passed and the church grew rapidly, that early sense of urgency gradually evaporated also. With the Emperor Constantine’s legalisation of Christianity early in the fourth century, persecution ceased and new questions arose. If Baptism was actually necessary for salvation, what happened to the ‘catechumens’ – those waiting for Baptism – if they died beforehand? Prudence counselled the wisdom of earlier and earlier baptism. So did the strictest teachings on original sin developed by St Augustine of Hippo. By the end of the fifth century, infant baptism had become the norm.

By that time also, Christianity was the official religion of the Roman empire. Infant baptism and the expectation that children would grow up within a Christian society meant that an entirely different sequence had overtaken Christian formation. Instead of first being instructed in the faith and then freely choosing baptism as adults, most Christians were first baptised as infants and then received as they grew some kind of formal or informal Christian education.

This had profound implications. For those baptised as infants – the overwhelming majority – there was no longer an overwhelming sacramental ‘rite of passage’ into an adult life of faith. It was simply assumed that the Christian social environment would gradually complete the process begun for the infant at Baptism.

The Catholic educational system we know today was first developed in this ‘Christendom’ social context – in which the state and the surrounding society supported the church and protected it from unorthodox ideas. The Protestant Reformation of the 1500s did not radically change this system in Catholic societies. The development of Catholic schooling in the modern era continued to be based upon the assumption that the individual baptised in infancy would be somehow formed into Catholic adulthood by the Catholic environment, especially the school. Increasingly, responsibility for Catholic education was delegated to professionals – trained Catholic teachers who were usually at first also priests or religious.

The assumption that this Catholic sacramental and educational system would in itself automatically ‘form’ adult Catholics was never subjected to a radical open questioning by the leaders of the church. This was despite the fact that the history of the church shows that many of its greatest saints had experienced a deep adult conversion arising out of unpredictable life experience – usually a deep personal crisis of some kind. (St Augustine of Hippo, St Patrick of Ireland, St Francis of Assisi, St Alphonsus de Liguori and St Ignatius Loyola spring readily to mind.)

In the eighteenth century the secularising intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment began seriously to undermine this ‘Christendom’ environment. Even Catholic schools had eventually to devote the bulk of their curriculum to secular subjects. In our own time in Ireland we have seen the rapid disappearance of priests and religious from Catholic schools – and at the same time the development of a powerful ‘youth culture’ that erodes parental influence during the child’s early adolescence.

Yet still today the ‘cradle’ Catholic child will usually receive the three Christian rites of initiation – Baptism, Eucharist and Confirmation – before adolescence sets in – as though Christendom was still in place and no environment hostile to faith awaited the teenager. The assumption of major responsibility for formation by the school has meant that typically parents feel incompetent to assist in the formation of teenage children. We still tend to rely upon our schools to do what we have been taught to believe they always did: form the Catholic adult. If they don’t succeed we often assume the fault must lie with the educational professionals.

Our sacramental system continues to deny most ‘cradle Catholics’ what the earliest Christians all took for granted – an adult sacramental ‘rite of passage’. Thus the Catholic teenager has no such event to look forward to, no opportunity to opt in as an adult. (Neither ordination nor marriage adequately fill this need.) It is a huge mistake to take teenagers for granted – this is undoubtedly a major cause of many of them opting out.

Since infant baptism became the norm in the fifth century the most rigorous teachings of St Augustine on original sin and salvation have been modified by Catholic theology. We no longer believe as he did that the unbaptised are denied heaven. Even less rigorous teachings on the existence of Limbo for unbaptised infants have been superseded. The Holy Spirit is now believed to be at work in the conscience of all humans, and the church teaches that divine grace will save the eternal lives of all who sincerely respond. It follows that the original argument for infant baptism has evaporated.

As for our Catholic formation system, it has always been the case that life experience will raise questions that children usually have neither the ability nor the need to think deeply about. Many adult Catholics will attest to later life experiences that made early instruction deeply meaningful for the first time. The deepest ‘conversion’ is almost always an adult affair. Nevertheless ‘adult faith formation’ is still just an option for a minority.

Those who have deeply studied the development of religious faith now agree that this usually happens in a sequence of stages. One of these is typically a period of the deepest questioning of early life instruction. A mature adult faith involves a deep experience of the mystery and beauty that lies behind childhood conceptions that are typically too literal and naive. It follows that it was always a mistake to suppose that faith can be guaranteed by childhood instruction alone, and to trust that Catholic schools should be able to ‘produce’ committed and fully formed Catholics.

The question must therefore arise: why is our formation system, including the timing of our sacraments of initiation, not now undergoing a radical reappraisal? Current circumstances for Catholicism in the West are increasingly closer to the crisis of the early church than they are to the era of Christendom – so why do we continue to behave as though Christendom was still in place?

It seems to me that three interrelated shifts need now to take place in our formation system.

First, we need to switch our major formation effort from childhood to adulthood. This does not mean that we abandon child religious education, but that we cease to think of it as a stand-alone system for ‘perpetuating the faith’. It means also that we need explicitly to tell our children that the deepest Christian faith does not usually come through school instruction, but through adult experience and through the graces available when we meet a crisis in our teenage or adult years.

Second, responsibility for adult formation must be relocated in the Christian community and combined with the missionary and evangelical effort that will now be required to meet the all-enveloping crisis we are facing. Adult faith formation must become part of the ordinary experience of all Catholics – not just an option for those who can afford the cost and the time. Catholic parents who are developing their own faith will need to become much more involved in the Christian formation of their teenage children. Those who argue that Catholic formation must be left to ‘the professionals’ need to recall that the word ‘professional’ is derived from the verb ‘to profess’, i.e. to adhere to and to avow, a faith. It is faith itself that best develops faith, and faith cannot be guaranteed by any professional training.

Thirdly, the adult experience of deep conversion must receive some kind of liturgical celebration, a ‘rite of passage’ organised by and for the Christian community. It simply does not make sense to confine all Catholic rites of initiation to the pre-adolescent phase of life when we know that the Pentecostal experience is almost always an adult experience, and when we know also that there is no eternal penalty for those who die unbaptised . We need to rethink the sequencing of our Catholic sacramental system, timed and structured as it is for an era that is now rapidly passing into history. As it stands it fosters clericalism – the assumption of all major responsibility for the church by ordained clergy, and the abdication of that responsibility by most of ‘the people of God’. It is clericalism above all that stands in the way of a revitalised church.

Christian faith in the end is not something passively received as a child, but something deliberately embraced as an adult. Our Catholic formation and sacramental system needs urgently to reflect that fact, while there are still some of us left.

Is unaccountable leadership worthy of the public’s respect?

Views: 29

Sean O’Conaill  © The Irish News, Belfast   Jan 13th 2011

As the Apostolic Visitation to Armagh ordered by Pope Benedict XVI begins, Sean O’Conaill wonders if it will examine why it took state inquiries to expose deep problems within the Church.

It can be a fascinating exercise to trace the remote origins of current events, and this is especially true of the ongoing apostolic visitation, headed in Ulster by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor.

At first sight the cause of this visitation is recent and obvious.  In his pastoral letter of March of last year Pope Benedict XVI promised such a visit ‘to assist the local Church on her path of renewal’. However, that pastoral letter was itself an unprecedented event, originating in the greatest public relations disaster the Catholic church has ever suffered in Ireland.  That disaster climaxed in 2009 with what are now known as the Ryan and Murphy reports – the results of exhaustive Irish state inquiries into the criminal abuse of children by Catholic clergy in recent times.  The detail of those reports shocked us all to the core. Certainly the Irish church is in need of renewal, but it is far less certain that this visitation can begin that process.

The central question crying out for an answer by all Catholic churchmen is why it required two Irish state inquiries to identify and describe such deep seated problems within the church.  Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor will leave Ireland under-informed if he does not hear that many of us are asking this question – and asking also why he and his brother cardinals show so far no inclination to address it.  Renewal of the Irish church, and of the western church generally is already being seriously delayed by the total failure of the Catholic church hierarchy to recognise the biggest elephant in the living room: our church is no longer self-regulating.  It obviously now requires secular state supervision and media vigilance to discipline errant bishops who have shown themselves totally  incapable of investigating and disciplining one another.

The reason for this is very simply.  Since the eighteenth century no pope has done what the brightest of earlier popes knew they were obliged to do – to take notice of advances in the understanding of administration and government in the secular world, and to adapt these to the church’s own needs.

In particular, modern popes have ignored a principle that is now part of the basic wisdom of secular administration:  to ensure that no individual is unaccountable, no individual should exercise undivided power.

That principle was observed in the Roman republic of ancient times.  It was overthrown to the detriment of Rome in Caesarian and imperial times.  It languished in the middle ages, but reappeared in the eighteenth century when it became known as the principle of the separation of powers.  It was most influentially propagated then by the French intellectual the Baron de Montesquieu, whose most brilliant works were placed on the Roman index in 1751.  Ironically they were avidly read in colonial America, and the principle of the separation of powers became the bedrock of the US constitution in 1787.

The irony lies in the fact that it was in the US in the 1980s that the revelation began of the universal policy of concealment of clerical child sex abuse by Catholic bishops.  To this day lawyers defending the papacy from litigation in US courts have been unable to point to a single instance of a Catholic bishop initiating a criminal investigation of a clerical abuser.  In all cases, perpetrators were first ‘outed’ by victims who took advantage of the fact that US secular courts were not under church control.

There is a further irony.  To the extent that Catholic children are now better protected from clerical predators, this is also entirely due to the secular principle of the separation of powers.  In Ireland as in the US and Britain, the Catholic hierarchy implemented no child-safeguarding measures until after the phenomenon of clerical child sex abuse had been revealed by secular processes.  The Irish hierarchy actually sought insurance protection from liability for injury caused by clerical sexual abuse in 1987 – a full eight years before they produced the first set of child protection guidelines in 1995.  And it was obviously the public revelation of the activities of Brendan Smyth in 1994 that finally precipitated these.  To this day there has been no acknowledgement or explanation of this astonishing and appalling sequence.

Nor has there been any acknowledgement that the ongoing visitation was precipitated also by the superiority of secular institutions.   The papal pastoral of March 2010 even partially attributed the abuse disaster to the ‘secularization of Irish society’ – without once mentioning that Catholic children were now safer because of events that had begun in secular courts.  There was no mention whatsoever of a fact that every educated person in Ireland now knows:  that the leadership of the church still operates a system of church government that did nothing to protect Catholic children until secular revelations left it no alternative.

Without an acknowledgement of this kind, the visitation seems short of both honesty and credibility.  How especially can the families of victims believe that these visiting bishops have some exalted expertise in child protection, when not one of them has had the candour and courage to acknowledge that Catholic bishops did not begin to prioritise child safety until secular processes had revealed that everywhere those bishops were doing the very opposite?

And how can Irish Catholics generally respect leaders who maintain without question the same archaic, self-indulgent and  unaccountable system of church government that has brought us global disgrace?

The Disgracing of Catholic Monarchism

Views: 367

© Sean O’Conaill 2010

(This article was first published in ‘The Dublin/Murphy Report: A Watershed for Irish Catholicism?’, eds. John Littleton and Eamon Maher, Columba Press, Dublin, 2010)

Concentrations of power are not divinely mandated or divinely supported.

This is the single most important lesson to be drawn from the catastrophe that overtook the Catholic clerical system in Ireland in the period 1992-2010. Far from being a catastrophe for the Catholic Church, this revelation will liberate and reshape all that is best in Catholicism, including Irish Catholicism, during the rest of this century.

As late as January 2010 no Irish Catholic bishop had publicly recognised why it is that the Catholic Church in Ireland has been exposed as deficient in its care for children not by any internal church mechanism but by two Irish state inquiries.  This is simply the fact that power in western secular society is not concentrated but distributed. Media, courts, government all wield considerable power, but none has the absolute power of a monarch. And it was monarchy, and monarchism, that was finally disgraced in Ireland in 2009. It became clear to everyone in that year that in the end only the secular media and the secular state could make an Irish Catholic bishop minimally accountable for the crime of endangering children.

True, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin and retiring Bishop Willie Walsh have acknowledged that the present church system presents problems of accountability for bishops. However, no Catholic bishop has yet acknowledged that the Ryan and Murphy reports have clearly revealed that concentrations of power actually corrupt all institutions that adhere to them. This lack of recognition, especially from the papacy, of something that any bright teenager can see, means that the Irish church, and Catholicism generally, lacks authoritative leadership from its hierarchy at this time.

Ireland’s Debt to the Enlightenment

It was the French Enlightenment philosopher, the Baron de Montesquieu, who first noticed that human liberty is best protected by a separation rather than a concentration of power. For intellectuals threatened with imprisonment by the vagaries of monarchical absolutism in early 18th century France, England was a haven. The long drawn out 17th century contest between monarchy and parliament had ended in stalemate in England, creating a rough balance of power. Unable to impose religious uniformity, the aristocratic and mercantile establishment in England had even granted a wide liberty to the press.

Very impressed, Montesquieu developed from this insight the principle of the separation of state power – a principle which became the bedrock of the US constitution of 1787. It was a principle that proved its durability in the lifetime of many of us, enabling the US Congress, supported by the Supreme Court, to force the resignation of the corrupt President Richard Nixon in 1974. Had Nixon been an absolute monarch, or a military dictator, this could not have happened.

It was essentially the same principle that enabled Catholic families harmed by clerical sexual abuse to launch the first civil suits against the Catholic clerical system in the United States in the 1980s, and to provoke the first criminal prosecutions for this crime. And it was the freedom of the press under that system that made sexual abuse a discussable subject by all news media in the West. Ireland’s liberation, beginning in the 1990s, began under a state system very different from its own.

Reformation Fragmentation

Montesquieu’s work had, of course, been placed upon the Roman index in 1751. It is deeply scandalous to the Catholic clerical system that the eventual vindication of Irish Catholic children should be partially a fruit of Montesquieu’s insight. There is another deeper scandal, however. The historical sequence that had led to the freedoms that Montesquieu had noticed in early 18th century England had begun with the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s. It was the religious fragmentation that followed the Reformation that had induced the creators of the US constitution to separate church and state – another key reason that the crime of Catholic clerical sexual abuse could first be uncovered and prosecuted in the United States.

The conclusion is inescapable. The poorest Irish children in the first seven decades of the life of an independent Ireland were severely penalised by the collusion of the Irish state with the monarchical Catholic clerical system – wedded as the latter was to paternalism, authoritarianism, clericalism and secrecy. The forces unleashed by greater access to international media in the 1960s eventually brought us into the Western intellectual mainstream – subject to the winds of change initiated by both the Reformation and the Enlightenment. It was no accident that the first prosecutions for clerical sexual abuse in Ireland were brought by the RUC. Or that many of the most forceful Irish journalists who uncovered the Irish scandal had already been themselves liberated from deference to Irish Catholic clericalism.

It is almost certainly this historical scandal – the origins of the liberation of Catholic children in forces hostile to monarchical Catholicism – that prevents the papacy from doing what Bishop Geoffrey Robinson requested it to do in 2002 – to undertake a church-wide investigation of the causes of the clerical child abuse catastrophe. This failure also is fast eroding the dwindling credibility of the system, and reinforcing the perception of many ordinary Catholics that most of their current bishops, and the pope also, are on an endless learning curve.

The Heresy of Clericalism

It was, after all, the Catholic historian Lord Acton who formulated the axiom of 1887 that every educated person knows by heart: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” We are still awaiting a papal encyclical that will notice this principle at work in the church, and in the corruption of bishops. The fact that we are still waiting is proof of that system’s continued denial of what history is revealing to it. So is the fact that we have never had an encyclical that will rise to the challenge of another sentence in that very same passage from Acton’s letters:

Here Acton was clearly indicting both Catholic clericalism and the monarchical principle – the notion that either kings or clerics are sanctified – made holy – by the offices they hold. This axiom is of supreme importance in the context of clerical child sexual abuse, because part of the abused child’s disempowerment was the contrasting supreme power assumed by the cleric by virtue of his office. (Was he not another Christ?) It was essentially this heresy that prevented one mother in Ferns from suspecting any danger in a priest sharing a bed with her own daughter.

The same heresy underlay the preference given by bishops in Ferns, Cloyne and Dublin to clergy over abused children. It underlay also the disgraceful deference shown by officials in the Department of education to those who dominated the dreadful Catholic institutions indicted in the Ryan report.

Clericalism and Cowardice

This latter connection is most deeply damaging to Catholic clericalism. Defining Catholic loyalty always in terms of deference to clerical authority it brought us in 2009 to an inescapable conclusion: the roots of the moral cowardice that prevented Irish civil servants from protecting Irish children from the most grotesque abuse in the residential institutions – and from reforming that system – lay in Catholic clerical authoritarianism. And so did the supine attitude of too many Gardai when confronted with clerical sexual abuse of children.

It was therefore deeply troubling for every thoughtful Irish Catholic to hear Pope Benedict XVI enthusiastically echoing in June 2009 the spiritualised rhetoric of the Curé d’Ars when he inaugurated a Year for Priests, with the words “After God the priest is everything!” Of course the morale of Catholic priests is a matter for concern at this most difficult time, but could there have been a better year for the pope to say instead: “After God the child is everything“? How are we now to believe that this pope has ever come close to empathising with the powerlessness of a Catholic child at the hands of a clerical sexual predator? Or to grasping the spiritual damage done by that offence – precisely because the child had typically been taught that ‘after god the priest is everything’?

Such rhetoric is therefore deeply offensive to the survivors of clerical sexual abuse, and an insuperable barrier to their reconciliation with the Catholic clerical system. Their lives will be long over before the slow learning curve betrayed by such an utterance will have been completed.

Conscience

This brings us to another reality: many conscientious Irish Catholics now feel an overwhelming obligation of solidarity with the victims of the Catholic clerical system, and deep anger at that system still stuck on its learning curve. They have a consequent deep need to discover a tradition of Catholic conscience that is not the clerical authoritarian one: “your conscience ceases to be Catholic if it does not accord with your bishop’s“.

This ‘take’ on conscience was always driven by a need for control. Its rationale was, of course, that without strict obedience ‘the church’ would fall apart and its core teachings would be lost. But just look at the state of the church in Ireland after four decades of authoritarianism following Vatican II. It is as far as it could be from a heaven of peace, harmony and unity.

The reason it is in fact a shambles was brought home to me soon after I had begun to make contact with some of those who had suffered most from clericalism – survivors of abuse and of the ecclesiastical mishandling of abuse. This had led members of VOTF in Derry to report our bishop, Seamus Hegarty, to Rome in 2006. The factuality of that report has never once been contested, but nevertheless I was faced one day with the following indignant question from someone who would consider himself the staunchest of Catholics:

“”Who told you to do what you are doing?”

It had obviously never occurred to this person that the primary obligation of a Christian, the obligation of love, might ever require him to act decisively on his own initiative – in opposition to a bishop whose policy and practice were in conflict with that obligation. If we reflect for a moment on what might have prevented those Department of Education officials from taking a Christian initiative in relation to the residential institutions, or on what led Gardai in the Archdiocese of Dublin to turn a blind eye to the criminal activities of abusive clerics, we will be led inexorably to the conclusion that they lived in total dread of the very same question:

“”Who told you to do what you are doing?”

To be paralysed by fear of that question is to be guilty of moral cowardice. To what extent is the social conscience of Irish Catholicism still paralysed by that fear?

The axiom that lies behind this question must run something like this: Catholic identity is to be defined solely in terms of total obedience and deference to Catholic clerical authority. Unquestioning adherence to that axiom is the root source of the disgrace we have all suffered in 2009. If we do not grasp that fact, and abandon that conviction, we will have learned nothing from what could be the most traumatic, and important, year in Irish Catholic history.

The Church’s Debt to Conscientious Integrity

To help us to abandon that conviction we need only reflect on an event that took place in October 2007. On the 26th of that month, in Linz, Austria, our church beatified Franz Jägerstätter. He had been guillotined by the Nazis in 1943 for refusing to serve in the German army on the eastern front. He had taken this decision in opposition to the pleading of his own bishop who, in common with all of the Austrian hierarchy, had supported Hitler’s war.

The conclusion to be drawn is starkly obvious. Although the Catholic magisterium will insist upon obedience in all eras, and will insist that a properly informed conscience cannot be disobedient, it may end up with no alternative but to honour a Catholic for disobedience in cases where it has itself been morally deficient.

To rescue ourselves from the moral and ecclesiastical cul de sac into which we were led by clerical authoritarianism we need to recognise that the authoritarian take on conscience (which emphasises obedience above every other consideration) has always been counterbalanced by what could be called the ‘divine spark’ tradition which accords to the individual the dignity of discernment and judgement, both likely consequences of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit of wisdom within the individual. Exponents of this tradition include St Jerome, Meister Eckhart and Cardinal Newman.

The Catholic Catechism itself expresses this richness by its reference to Newman alongside its emphasis upon the role of the magisterium in forming conscience. The conscience of the individual is also, in Newmans’ words ‘the aboriginal Vicar of Christ‘.

Let us suppose for a moment that the following fantastical sequence of events had occurred in Ireland in the aftermath of Vatican II.

Disturbed by the situation in Ireland’s residential institutions for children, a small group of civil servants in Ireland’s Department of Education discovered one day in 1966 the references in the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium to the ‘just freedom which belongs to everyone in this earthly city’. After further thought and prayer, and meditation on Cardinal Newman’s teachings on conscience, this ‘LG37’ group decided to conduct a surprise inspection of a sample of the institutions, and then immediately to leak their findings to the media. These caused a sensation and a crisis of church and state. Popular outrage led to a more thorough study, which broadly vindicated the original findings and led to a thorough reform of the system in the decade that followed.

Given the climate of the time, this would, of course, have been an almost miraculous occurrence – but so was Franz Jägerstätter’s exercise of his own Catholic conscience in Austria in 1942. Had this actually happened, would such an ‘LG37’ group now be vilified as disobedient Irish Catholics who had acted in defiance of the church’s teachings on obedience and conscience? Or would they be regarded as having vindicated their church when it was in serious danger of being totally disgraced?

The Case for Loyal Opposition

The case I am making is the case made by Joe Dunn in 1994 in “No Lions in the Hierarchy”1Joseph Dunn,“No Lions in the Hierarchy:  An Anthology of Sorts”, Columba Press, Dublin, 1994 – for the toleration by the magisterium of a loyal opposition within the church. That case has conclusively been made by the events of 2009 – because we have all been totally disgraced by the absence of that very thing. Most of the scandals of the past sixteen years could have been avoided if the Irish church had developed after Vatican II a structural tolerance for serious differences of opinion among the people of God.

Of course there is a need to be concerned that ‘the deposit of faith‘ is not fractured, dissipated and lost. But what ‘deposit of faith‘ was occupying the minds and hearts of all of those who turned a blind eye to the intense suffering of children in Catholic institutions within living memory? Or the Archbishops of Dublin who imperilled children? Or the Gardai who also failed to react decisively against criminal behaviour by clerics?

There is a crucial distinction to be made between core Catholic belief, and the living out of that belief in the real world. It is now clear that the most senior members of the magisterium can make appalling mistakes in the practical application of their faith and in the administration of the church. An overweening concern to maintain a monolithic church by penalising any kind of dissent has given us the global and Irish Catholic catastrophes of this era. The equation of independence of mind with disloyalty is a mistake we must recognise and rectify, with the greatest urgency.

Just now in January 2010 it seems extremely unlikely that the pastoral letter promised by Pope Benedict XVI to Ireland for the spring of 2010 will rise to these challenges. Given the fact that Catholic bishops have protected abusers in at least twenty-five other countries, the confinement of a church reorganisation to Ireland is entirely indefensible and reeks of the deadly disease of damage limitation. If there is a sweeping change in personnel at the summit of the Irish church as a result of this pastoral it will then fall to this new generation of Irish bishops to prove it has learned something from the total failure of the church system we have inherited.

But whatever happens, the exposure of the total moral failure of Catholic ecclesiastical monarchism will not be lost on future generations of intelligent Irish children. They have already established a tradition of waving goodbye to that system in their teens. There is a good case for arguing that the better part of the Irish Catholic church has already escaped from it, and waits only to be reconvened by a papacy and hierarchy that will at some stage in the future have completed its learning curve, recovered its intellectual integrity and finally woken up to the moral superiority of distributed power.

Catholicism has no other viable future in Ireland, or anywhere else.

Notes

  1. Joseph Dunn, “No Lions in the Hierarchy:  An Anthology of Sorts”, Columba Press, Dublin, 1994
[Correction – July 3rd, 2024 – The date first given for the execution of Franz J was 1942.  He was guillotined on 9th August 1943 – so this has been corrected above.]